Musicological Musings with a smattering of Miscellanea

Saturday, February 23, 2013

CONCERT PICKS: Blue Heron- March 2, 2013

MMM's new feature "MUSICAL PICKS" will occasionally highlight  upcoming concerts in the Boston area, particularly those connected to musicological conferences and activities.

This should be splendid! And please note that Blue Heron will also be performing on March 1st at BU as part of the conference Voice and Voicelessness in Medieval Europe and Beyond.

Press Release:

Divine Songs

Connections and exchanges between secular song and sacred music, featuring the music of Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1420-1497)

Johannes Ockeghem, one of the greatest composers of all time, is completely unknown to many listeners today. His endlessly fascinating sacred music has been characterized as mystical; his songs, each one a gem of invention, can be funny, heart wrenching, or profound. The program includes French songs and sacred music based on them.

Free pre-concert talk at 7:15 by Sean Gallagher (Boston University)

Blue Heron
Scott Metcalfe, director, harp & medieval fiddle
Pamela Dellal, Paul Guttry, David McFerrin, Owen McIntosh, Jason McStoots, Martin Near, Mark Sprinkle and Sumner Thompson, voices
Laura Jeppesen, rebec & medieval fiddle

DATE: Saturday, March 2, 2013
TIME: 8:00 pm

First Church in Cambridge, Congregational
11 Garden St
Cambridge, MA 02138

Tickets: $50 - Section A and $40 - Section B (reserved seating), $30 - Section C (general seating)
Discounts: Seniors $25, Students/Low Income $10, Under 18 FREE


TO ORDER TICKETS ONLINE: (for print listings)

The vocal ensemble Blue Heron, directed by Scott Metcalfe, has been acclaimed by The Boston Globe as "one of the Boston music community's indispensables" and hailed by Alex Ross in The New Yorker for the "expressive intensity" of its interpretations; the Boston Musical Intelligencer calls Blue Heron "a fantastic model for the fully-realized potential of early music performance in the 21st century." Combining a commitment to vivid live performance with the study of original source materials and historical performance practices, Blue Heron ranges over a wide and fascinating repertoire.

Blue Heron's first CD, featuring music by Guillaume Du Fay, was released in 2007; its second, of music from the Peterhouse partbooks by Hugh Aston, Robert Jones, and John Mason, followed in 2010. Both discs have received international critical acclaim and the Peterhouse CD made the Billboard charts. The second volume of Blue Heron's 5-CD series Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, featuring music of Nicholas Ludford and Richard Pygott, was released in April 2012. The third in the series is due this Fall.

Founded in 1999, Blue Heron presents subscription series in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in New York City. The ensemble has appeared at the Boston Early Music Festival, New York's 92nd Street Y, The Cloisters, and Music Before 1800, Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., the Pittsburgh Renaissance and Baroque Society, and Monadnock Music in New Hampshire, and with the wind band Piffaro and the viol consort Parthenia in Philadelphia. Blue Heron made its West Coast debut at Festival Mozaic in San Luis Obispo, California, and returned to California in 2012 for a debut at the Berkeley Early Music Festival.


"Passionate expression and dramatic attention to text...nuanced dynamic shadings and emotive conviction"
Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times | June, 2012

"Sumptuously beautiful...sung with bravura and grace"
Joshua Kosman, The San Francisco Chronicle | June, 2012

"a revelation - fresh, dynamic and vibrant...urgent and wondrous music-making of the highest order"
Damian Fowler, Gramophone | November, 2012

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Reflections on Beyond Notation: An Earle Brown Symposium

I'm glad to say it was teaching that kept me from attending the first day of Beyond Notation: An Earle Brown Symposium at Northeastern University, rather than some less noble excuse. I did attend many of the events on Saturday, however, and the day concluded with an extraordinary concert by the Callithumpian Consort. I offer a few reflections here, but this is by no means an exhaustive report on all events of the symposium, nor even all the events I attended.

 Richard Toop's keynote offerings (introduced via an audio recording of Toop and then read by Rebecca Kim) on lyricism in Brown's "Centering" (1973) gave me a deep appreciation for Ethan Wood's stunning performance with the Callithumpian later that night. Volker Straebel's paper, "Interdependence of Composition and Technology in Earle Brown's Tape Compositions Octet I/II (1953/54) highlighted some important distinctions between Cage's thoughts about sound versus Brown's view of sound durations--particularly Cage's more contrapuntal approach and Brown's "sound events that may or may not overlap." Brown's remark regarding the "kaleidoscopic abstraction of the library of sounds" invites me to spend more time incorpating Brown in my Feldman seminar. One of the biggest treats of the day was hearing Straebel's realization of Octet II, as the work was never realized in Brown's lifetime. I was struck by the sonic effect of looping the source material, as opposed to Octet I. As a musical work, the looping really did provide glue, particularly for a multi-channel piece. The lack of decay, as well, made Octet II a far different listening experience than Octet I. A question from the audience remarked on the irony of Brown's skepticism toward musique concrète, but the point was made (and I think rightly so) that the goals of musique concrète were more narrative, and that the use of chance operations negotiate Brown's issues with the art form.

Another highlight of yesterday's sessions was Stephen Drury, who led members of the Callithumpian Consort in a performance of John Zorn's Cobra, an unpublished game piece reliant upon a series of cues, but spontaneous in its musical material. Zorn describes these works as "tying together loose strings left dangling by composers such as Earle Brown, Cornelius Cardew, John Cage and Stockhausen...".(1) Drury provided just enough explanation of how the piece worked, but then let the work speak for itself, which seems to be largely the point. The presentation questioned conventional definitions of improvisation and composition, and Drury's abstract summarized beautifully the crux of the matter: "We learn/understand by traveling backwards through history; the recent past informs the less recent past; performers ain't what they used to be." (2) Drury mused that listening to Cobra without watching it made the experience both better and worse, and this stemmed from a question from the audience regarding the role of personality in improvised and open form works. One audience member offered that Cage strove to remove personality & performer's ego from his music, whereas Zorn seemed to thrive on it. I'm not ready to say that Cage and Zorn represent two polarities, because I think the whole "ego-less" mantra surrounding Cage's music is easily problematized, but positing Brown's open form works as a sort of "middle-ground" was intriguing. Another valuable insight stemming from this presentation was the idea that, although these game pieces can "sound like anything," they must sound good. Perhaps therein lies the real labor in performing a piece like this. Zorn's "community of players" have an aesthetic responsibility to themselves and the audience.

After this performance-demonstration, Stephen Drury conversed with Christian Wolff, which generated some interesting discussion regarding ideas of "perfection" in performance, the contemporary context for the rekindled popularity of this music, and the caveats brought about by recordings and access to previous performances of open form and improvisational works.

After lunch, Louis Pine offered a workshop on "Aspects of Earle Brown's Use of the Schillinger System of Composition" with a focus on Brown's 1992 work Tracking Pierrot. I only caught the last fifteen minutes of the workshop, but it did seem to be a worthwhile examination of Brown's pre-compositional plans and an attempt to more fully articulate the impact of Brown's study at the Schillinger House in Boston from 1945-1950. Jason Cady, of the Earle Brown Music Foundation, followed Pine's presentation with a generally helpful overview of Brown's compositional ideas and methods. I think all specialized symposia should open with a presentation of this type, inviting those less familiar with the subject to be more engaged. Particularly since one of the goals of these events is musical advocacy, expanding the conversation toward those outside of the niche should be a consideration.

It was Frederick Gifford's paper, "Imagining an Ever-Changing Entity: Compositional Process in Earle Brown's Cross Sections and Color Fields," that I found most engaging from the perspective of sketch and manuscript studies. In a beautifully organized presentation, drawn from an exhaustive examination of the sketches, Gifford proposed a five-step compositional process that perhaps most importantly put Brown's thoughts about open form as a later step, if not the last.

I did not attend the last session, but returned for the fantastic concert by the Callithumpian Consort, which beautifully contextualized Brown's "Corroboree" (1964), "Centering" (1973), "Available Forms I" (1961) and "Sign Sounds" (1972), in reference to two works not by Brown: Boulez's "Constellation-Miroir" (1957) and Zorn's "For Your Eyes Only" (1989). Steffen Schleiermacher was the guest soloist for the Boulez, and beautifully rendered the composer's materials. In his program note on the work, Richard Toop remarked on the irony in performing this work as part of this symposium: "Sure, it represents Boulez's work at precisely the point where he started to advocate Brown's music. Yet in other respects it seems to represent the opposite of Brown's pragmatism. In Cage's Notations, Brown writes: 'Good notation is what works.' But apropos Constellation-Miroir, Boulez might rather have written: 'Good notation is what mythologises'." (3) All the performances of the night were inspired and visionary, but Ethan Wood's performance in "Centering" was particularly profound, embodying the "otherworldly" aspect that ends the piece with a quotation of Maderna's first oboe concerto.

Bravo to the organizers and participants for such a wonderful symposium.

(1) John Zorn, "The Game Pieces" in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, eds. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (New York: Continuum, 2009), 196.

(2) Beyond Notation: An Earle Brown Symposium, program, 18.
(3) Beyond Notation: An Earle Brown Symposium, program, 27.

(Cross-posted at the AMS-NE Blog)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

PowerPoint Presentations: Proceed with Caution

There may seem like no drier topic than writing about PowerPoint, but I think it is an issue worthy of conversation, particularly in how it is used in academic settings. I've seen PP presentations improve over the last few years, but occasionally I still encounter the PP presentation that tries to compete with a Broadway show (rather than support the speaker), or falls flat out of some sense that PP slides are an obligation.

 I heard many wonderful papers at the Fall meeting of the New England Chapter of the American Musicological Society yesterday.* I was particularly struck, however, by Dan DiCenso's paper, "More Roman than "Gregorian," More Frankish than "Old Roman": What a Newly Rediscovered Italian Source Reveals about the Roman and Frankish Character of Chant Transmission in the Mid-Ninth Century." The presentation was not only full of intriguing content, but was an exemplary use of PowerPoint. Dan's presentation was also a good model for engaging a mixed audience on a topic that may be relatively foreign to a large group within the audience. He included comparative tables which clearly illustrated the various relationships between the Monza manuscript and the Sárospatak fragment, as well as other Old Roman sources. There was no need to be well-versed in medieval manuscripts, as Dan presented his information as clearly-defined visual data. Thoughtful use of circles and arrows highlighted particular elements of a slide as he spoke.

I used to teach at a place that had fully wired classrooms, so I made use of the technology and encouraged the students to do so as well.  When a group engaged PowerPoint slides for their projects,  this was a learning experience for all parties involved. There are two major errors I see in PP presentations: The Gratuitous PowerPoint and The Overwrought PowerPoint. I will define each, and indicate the pitfalls of both types.

The Gratuitous PowerPoint: This is the PP presentation filled with photographs, special fonts, fancy formatting, and all sorts of bells and whistles that offer little more than entertainment value. This is often motivated by a lack of substance in the actual presentation.


  • Visual input can detract from aural input (for more on this, I recommend reading Rich Mayer's ideas regarding cognitive loads in Multi-Media Learning)
  •  The opportunity for students to grasp the outline form of a presentation might be impeded by various kinds of visual miscellanea
  • Forced PowerPoint presentations can lead to sloppy work (I remember well a presentation on composer Roger Sessions which began with a slide of software architect Roger Sessions, simply because he was the first result in a Google Image search).
The Overwrought PowerPoint:  Similar to the Gratuitous PP (but often stemming from different motivation) this is the PP that tries too hard and probably includes too much information.

  • There is so much information included on the slide, that the viewer is either distracted by the presenter, or the two cancel each other out. Students often feel it necessary to copy everything down off the slides.
  • Highlighting everything can corrupt the structure of a presentation, as well as allowing viewers to hone in on the emphatic points of the presentation.
  • Often there is little else left to be said, so the slides become a transcript of the presentation.

There are certainly more pitfalls, but I'd rather focus on what I like to see in a PP presentation, and how I do think they can be beneficial--both in terms of the process of making a presentation and in terms of the impact on an audience.

  • The student is forced to draw out the cogent and important main points from their topic
  • The student can decide what needs visual illustration and what does not
  • The student gets experience giving a presentation accompanied by visual media
  • Helps engage the student with different modes of learning
  • opportunities to put faces to names (particularly helpful in the classroom)
  • musical examples (CAVEAT: full pages of score with tiny annotations are better viewed on a handout--especially in a large conference setting).
  • simple animations to highlight events in score examples
  •  in-slide audio examples
  • can help reinforce reading of lengthier quotations (as long as they are read aloud with the presentation of the slide).
  • using charts, tables, and graphs to represent comparisons, historical trends, etc. Again, this can engage multiple modes of learning by re-framing something with non-traditional illustrations. For example, a melody might be expressed as a graph of pitches (y-axis) in time (x-axis) to effectively demonstrate the concept of "melodic contour" in a music appreciation course.

So, PowerPoint presentations can become a crutch if used incorrectly. The general rule I give my students is: PowerPoint should enhance your presentation, but if the technology fails, your presentation should still be engaging and informative. This encourages both backups (CDs of musical examples) and a sense of responsibility regarding what is presented off-slide.

What are your PowerPoint tips? Pet peeves?


*All the slide presentations at this meeting were fine to great, according to the criteria I propose here.

Monday, July 09, 2012

"Writing to Learn" Seminar at Bard's Institute for Writing and Thinking: Day 1

"Quaker reading"... "focused free write"..."framing our inquiry..."big brain discussion". These are some of the terms that floated around the room last night at the first workshop of the Writing to Learn Session here at The Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College. We began with a five minute private free write, and then a focused private free write in response to a quote by Jeanette Winterson. I am not new to the ideas of free writing, but it was nice to sit around a seminar table and engage in it again as a student. Unsurprisingly, I surprised myself. ;-) I sense that there is going to be a lot of writing involved, which pleases me greatly.  I did bring my laptop, but I prefer to write by hand in the workshops (Bard has provided us with special wide-margined notebooks for this purpose). I find that it forces me to be slower and, in some ways, less of a perfectionist. This might even be because I don't like seeing strikeouts and other "messy" things on a page, so maybe the perfectionism issue is still there. Most of this blog post is actually a free write (part of my morning pages at, so I apologize to any readers I might have.

I guess that was my disclaimer.  We were told last night, by our excellent workshop leader Maureen Burgess, that we were allowed one disclaimer when we shared our writing. I thought, "Ha! She knows me!" Leaving off the editorializing preamble was more difficult than I thought--I managed to do it, but I had to squash the desire. I was actually quite surprised by my own reaction to the prompt: "Tell the story when a piece of writing moved you." I was moved by the act of telling that story. I finished with this:

"I loved being a puzzle piece that never quite fit, but could fake it if pushed hard enough."
I have no idea where that came from, except that I remembered I wrote a poem in junior high about the world as a jigsaw puzzle. I don't remember the words of the poem, except that I focused on the image of the cardboard stubs that sometimes make it difficult to fit the pieces together. I guess that image has traveled with me in my subconscious.

Before we checked in to the Institute, my colleague and I attended a wonderful dance performance by Compagnie Fêtes galantes (at Bard's Fisher Center). Set to music by Bach (2nd, 3rd and 6th Brandenburgs; "Wir eilen mit schwachen..." from Cantata 78), the company presented roughly an hour of some of the most interesting choreography I've ever witnessed.  Based heavily on Baroque dance, Béatrice Massin's choreography incorporates all sorts of modern gestures, and even flamenco. The entire work, entitled Que ma joie demeure/Let my joy remain, featured "unmusical" interludes--dancing that had no musical accompaniment save for the sound of the dancers' feet. These interludes were fascinating as Bach's counterpoint seemed to remain in the room by proxy--you could see it in the dancer's moves and the patterns created on stage. It was captivating and the whole troupe gave new life to Baroque gesture and dance as a platform for creative expansion.

I don't know if I will blog every day of this seminar, and I don't want to reveal too many details. But even after Day 1, I get a very strong sense of writing to learn. It has always been part of my own writing experience in some sense...that is why I love to write. We finished our workshop last night with one of Paul Auster's essays in the New Yorker, "Why Write?" It is an amazingly powerful piece, especially when read collectively by a group of strangers. Auster says, "If nothing else, the years have taught me this: if there's a pencil in your pocket, there's a good chance that one day you'll feel tempted to start using it."

Monday, June 25, 2012

750 Words: How to Write the Words you Love, While Maintaining Professor's Fatigue

(Insert apologetic paragraph about my absence from this blog).

I'm here now.
One of the biggest revelations of teaching is how much time it takes away from writing. Actually, it would be more accurate to say how much energy it takes away from writing. I never thought I'd miss the days of the dissertation, when it was just me and the computer for hours on end...

Ok, I don't really miss those days. But I do worry that ideas are rotting in my head rather than fermenting, and I'm hoping to commit more of them to paper (or pixels, I suppose). To that end, I'm trying  The idea is that you write in an uninhibited and spontaneous way, every day, and the website tracks your words for you (as well as various other statistics which can be entertaining...see below).  This is akin to what I call "mental barf" when helping my students through the writing process.  This is the "quantity, not quality" approach, which has its use...particularly in getting over the biggest hurdle of writing: starting.

What you write is private, and presumably many people use the site for a personal journal. My 755 words today about Copland and the Communists could explain why my stats say I'm feeling "upset." Words like "insidious," "posturing" and "darkness" are bound to get those algorithms computing a profile of a rather melancholy author.

So, why a website like this instead of just sitting down and opening up MS Word every day? Well, I think, as pathetic as it might sound, it helps to have a little virtual writing coach. When you hit 750 words, a sedate green pop-up informs you of your accomplishment, and you can either keep going, or stop for the day.  Points are awarded for writing at all, writing 750 words, and so forth.

During the school year, I seem to go on a diet which includes cutting out most writing, research and performing and depends solely on the nutritive qualities of lesson planning, grading, and teaching. This summer, in an attempt to be more musicologically healthy, I'm slowly introducing research and writing back into the diet. My hope is, with regular practice, healthy writing will become a part of my daily regimen, even during the school year.

I'd love to hear from those of you who use 750words or programs like it.  What strategies do you have for consistent writing?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

AMS San Francisco 2011 Saturday, November 12

What a pleasure to attend an entire session and to enjoy all four papers! The Cage and Friends session was very engaging and I enjoyed the recollections of Gordon Mumma, who served as the session's co-chair. He requested that the questions be kept concise, that they should actually resemble questions, and that the answers should likewise be kept short. I'd love to see these rules printed on a banner and posted in every session. People observed these guidelines for the most part, and the net effect was that I rather enjoyed the Q and A portion of each paper. See my previous post for a list of the papers.

The session also worked well because there was a fair amount of cohesion, making for a rather lovely academic symphony. The outer movements, if you will, were papers by Brett Boutwell and Phil Gentry. What I enjoyed most about these two papers is how they addressed larger issues within musicology, using Feldman and Cage as examples. Boutwell explored the genesis of Feldman's Projections, and how Feldman transmitted and attributed a variety of influences on his work, and his ideas for graphic notation. Phil Gentry's paper on Cage's famous book Silence, adressed issues of autobiography and how we may be too quick to dismiss interpretations of these works with which their original authors might have disagreed. The paper looked at the "covert values" of Indeterminacy in Cage's "narrative" and most importantly, noted the lack of focus on 4'33" within the book. What writings Cage chose to include or not include is perhaps as much a part of the autobiographical narrative as the work itself.

The two inner movements were also very fascinating, and I appreciated the humble confession by You Nakai regarding his slight nervousness presenting in front of Gordon Mumma, who entertained with numerous yet relevant anecdotes about the creation of these pieces and Cage's life in general. Richard Brown's paper taught me much about Richard Lippold, a sculptor about whom I knew little. Most intriguing was his investigation of curatorial strategies and their impact on art, particularly the reception of the artist.

Friday, November 11, 2011

AMS 2011 San Francisco Introductory post

Well, it is that time of year again, when musicologists from North America and beyond converge in a city to hear papers on myriad topics, eat, drink, and generally be merry. I've always maintained that there are two best case scenarios for a conference: a boring conference in a fantastic city or a fantastic conference in a boring city. This year might be challenging because there are plenty of papers I'd like to see, is San Francisco! As a California native, I have very little excuse for not knowing this city better than I do.

I missed the one paper I really wanted to see yesterday due to less-than-stellar registration/maintenance issues at the hotel. However, I did dine at Gary Danko...thought to be, by many, the best restaurant in the city. I will write a detailed post about that dinner on my cooking blog, complete with photos. Suffice to say, it was an amazing meal, but I should have trained myself to eat such a large volume of food. More on that later. I am blessed to have AMS be an extension of my birthday celebration every year, and my annual dinner with my best friend is worth the trip across the country, even without AMS.

Today, I plan on attending an entire session. This is rare..usually I jump from paper to paper. From 9 to 12 I will be at the John Cage and Friends session listening to the following papers:

Brett Boutwell, "Morton Feldman's Projections Origins, Development, and Spin"
You Nakai, "To Imitate Their Manner of Operation: John Cage's use of Technological Media as Metaphorical Models in the 1950s and 60s"
Richard Brown, "Hearing Through, Seeing Through: John Cage, Richard Lippold, and Open Sculpture"
And then finally a paper by my friend and fantastic fellow blogger Phil Gentry, "Writing Silence

As I prepare my Cage seminar for next semester, I am excited to have the opportunity to hear some of the most recent research on Cage. A full report will follow.

Very happy to be here.

Apologies for the lack of italics... I'm still figuring out how to use my iPad. :)